The Road to Somewhere

They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. My preacher recently pointed out that the road to Heaven is also paved with good intentions. It’s what you DO on each road that matters. If the heat you’re packing is only the intent, you might be on the wrong road.

I’ve been thinking about these roads lately, because I find myself hopping back and forth between them more than I’d like to admit. I’ve discovered that there are places along the route where the fork between roads is fairly narrow and the signage is blurry. It’s easy to veer if I’m not paying attention or a stiff breeze blows me in the wrong direction. Most of the time, I do okay. Even better than okay. Most of the time I’m high functioning, with a hint of irrational just to keep things interesting. But since January, my entire landscape has changed. I expected to miss Jennifer. That part, though terrible, has not been a surprise to me. I did not expect to be so easily thrown off course. I didn’t expect that in losing her I could so easily lose myself.

Oh, and then there’s menopause. Don’t even get me started on that. I can tell you which road that one is on…

Within the last 7 days, there are two I am completely ashamed of. On both of these days, there was almost nothing in my thoughts or actions that I recognized. Yesterday was one of those days. And at about 1:30 p.m., I launched my paddle board into the Hillsborough River to hopefully shift the tone of the day I was having. In previous years, I wouldn’t have stepped out on a paddle board in August. The gator activity is still fairly high. But this year? Eh. Why not?

So I did.

I was in a mood, I can tell you.

I shoved out into the river in pursuit of peace and better thinking.
What I ended up with was a little more than I bargained for.

To be totally fair, it had been a peaceful paddle until the final ten minutes. This time of year, you don’t see boats on the river in the middle of a weekday. Yesterday was no different. My paddle broke the surface of the water in a quiet percussive cadence that played under the strain of the cicadas. I don’t love the sound of cicadas, because they remind me of creepy things that would send me to the hospital if I ever came face to face with one. But yesterday, this soft, late-summer melody in the trees lulled me into lying down on the paddle board for a few minutes to look up at the sky. I don’t do this much, because I fear people seeing me through their plate glass windows, thinking I’m dead, and trying to rescue me. It hasn’t happened, obviously, but it would be outrageously awkward if it did. I stayed flat and relaxed long enough to drift into a neighbor’s deck. At that point, I stood up and maneuvered the paddle board back in the direction of my house.

On the return paddle home, the current was against me and the wind had kicked up. The front of my board bobbed in the ripple created by the weather and I dug twice as hard to move half as fast. Even so, I was moving along fine. When I got to my own bend in the river, the wind died and the water settled into a slick surface like coffee table glass. I noted where I was, but wasn’t as focused on my immediate surroundings as I should have been. It took me too long to see him. About 20 feet to my right was a 9-foot gator.
He was right there.
Right there.
And my momentum was carrying me straight to him. I pulled my paddle out of the water and rested the tip on my board and the handle against my shoulder. And then I pulled out my phone to shoot a short video, because that’s always my natural inclination. The way I orchestrated this particular video was a mistake. One of two things should have happened in that moment: 1) Either I should have never pulled out my camera in the first place and tried to back away from this lurking river rat, or 2) I should have risked everything and continued to film what happened next. Because what I actually did is what I always do. I filmed a mediocre plot-point leading up to a climactic moment which I then did NOT film. It is my gift to the world. I never catch the real stuff on camera. Ever.

After making myself about as nervous as I’ve ever been on the river, I put my phone back into my shorts pocket. And at that moment the gator went berserko. He raised up out of the water, flopped spectacularly down onto the surface making a massive splash, and then disappeared into the brown cypress-colored murk leaving a wake behind him.
While I watched with my jaw dropped and my eyes the size of Dora the Explorer’s.
By this point in the sequence, I was less than 10 feet from all the thrashing.
I stood there stifled by panic, with my paddle still perched on my shoulder, and wondered what my next move should be. Do I wait it out and see where he comes up for air? Do I high tail it home? Paddle home but do so gingerly and try not to draw attention to what a fleshy great meal my glutes would make for a wild animal?

Ultimately I chose to high tail it gingerly. I moved fast and cautiously and I didn’t look back. My guess is the alligator went to the bottom and had no intention of eating anything the size of a middle-aged house frau or her paddle board. But guesses like that don’t guarantee safety, so I got out of the water as quickly as I could.

Once I was safely on my deck, I sat on the edge to wait for my heart rate to settle and to ponder the entire day. I had gone out that day as a rebel, not caring much about anything and convinced nothing much cared about me. I had gone looking for peace and trouble on the same river at the same time. In ways, I found them both.

And I came back thinking about the roads paved with good intentions. I’d like to tell you that this gator encounter and my subsequent thinking fixed everything. It didn’t. The day continued to go downhill and I finished it pretty pathetically by climbing into bed at 10 p.m. and turning out the lights. I laid there in the dark for an hour, thinking again about the day. Wondering what my problem was and why I couldn’t just get my junk together.  Thinking about my intentions versus my actions. There were things I had intended to do and hadn’t done that might have turned my day around. There were things I should not have done and did do that made the hole I was standing in even deeper. But what I knew for certain was that the next day, today, needed to be different from start to finish.

As I laid in the dark of my bedroom, I set an alarm for 6 a.m. and decided I would force myself out on a short run this morning before the kids got up for school. And then I got a simple text from a faraway friend that read “How was your day?” I decided to answer that text fairly honestly. And in doing so, I took another step toward the better road.

Today was night and day different. Up before sunrise, high functioning, gator respecting, task completing, fun loving different. I stayed out of the river, off the ledge, and added a certain hormones doctor to my contacts for quick future access. Just in case.

Too much information? Yeah, probably. That wasn’t really my intention. But you know what they say about those…

Old friends, New friends

I went to Bowling Green to cry. That’s not what I would have said I was there to do. That’s not what I even believed I was there to do. But that is what I did. Seven months to the day after I helped memorialize my best and oldest friend, Jennifer, I went to see her again. In the cemetery.

I flew into Nashville on a Friday morning and leisurely ambled toward Bowling Green in a rented, rather fancy, Jeep Grand Cherokee. I had only paid for a small, un-fancy, SUV. But while I was standing at the rental car counter filling out paperwork, the agent asked me a question.

“Do you know the song, Delta Dawn?”

What a random question to be asked in 2022 at the Enterprise rental car garage kiosk. And this man was too young to be asking me the question.

“Actually, I do!” I answered confidently. “I’ve been singing that since I was a toddler. Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on…” I continued past the point of his question.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I knew it was flower! Excellent.” At this point, I was fully invested in the lyrics and in the conversation.

“Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?” I asked the man. He didn’t care anymore about my faded roses. Or about my vast Delta Dawn knowledge. I could have gone on for another half hour. He was done with me.

But when it came down to walking the row of fleet vehicles and choosing one for me and for my friend, Mackenzie, the Enterprise man upgraded us to a large, sweet ride. We used that ride to get into town, find a decent lunch, and then get Mackenzie to her friend’s house. I moved on to my hotel.

I spent a couple of hours that evening with Jennifer’s mom, talking. Crying. Reminiscing. I’m hoping the fact that she let me into her house means she has forgiven the rogue piercing we orchestrated in her upstairs hall bathroom in 1991. We “borrowed” an expensive needle not quite designed for ear lobes. I’ve got some serious ears. The needle didn’t survive it. I almost didn’t.

When Jennifer’s mom and I were done talking, I took myself to Chuy’s and finished the day with enchiladas. Sometimes an enchilada is all you got. From there, I went back to the hotel to decompress. My hotel room should have been comfortable. I couldn’t specifically identify what was wrong with it. But it was dim lit and carried a vibe of cauldrons and voodoo dolls. So much so that I had cancelled my second night there before the 6 p.m. cutoff, walked across the parking lot to a different hotel, and booked a new room for the following day.

For the last week or so, I haven’t made it past 4 a.m. in my sleep patterns. I would guess this is largely linked to my caffeine habit. So until I make a few adjustments to my routines, I can’t complain about it. Whatever the cause is, the pattern is that I go to sleep fine. I do not stay asleep fine. Saturday morning, I attempted to doze a little between 4 and 8 a.m., without much success. I was thinking about my plans for the day, looking up at a ceiling that was still too dark to see. I didn’t know how to find where Jennifer had been buried. I hadn’t been at the graveside that day, because it was my youngest child’s 14th birthday. I had scoured airlines, willing to do almost anything to make it work. But the only way to stay for the burial was to miss the birthday. And I knew what Jennifer would have told me on that decision. Go home, Missy. And so I did. But it has nagged at me for 7 months that I missed this final piece of it. Being a visual processor, I needed to work through this one in person. And there, on Saturday, it was time to do that. I wondered if I would be able to find her in a cemetery full of beautiful lives and stone-etched stories probably not so different from her own. I had convinced myself that with enough tenacity, I could find her without help—without ever having been there. I didn’t have to, though, because while I was lying in a quiet room thinking about it, her sister sent me a video leading me to the gravesite.  That was all I needed to get there. It was also all I needed to know that I would never have found it on my own.

I watched the video right before crawling out of bed for the day.
I now knew how to get to her.
I didn’t know what I would do when I did.

Everything else I did that day felt like a cliché. Hoards of people just like me have sat in front of graves just like hers. Like me, those people love deep. Like me, those people grieve hard. But I don’t care about that right now, because those people aren’t me and their person wasn’t Jennifer.  

It was 78° and overcast when I climbed out of my Delta Dawn ride and walked over to the plot of earth that was a mix of clay and crabgrass. As is typical of so many things post-Covid, the headstone is in process and is taking forever. And though no headstone could do her justice anyway, not having one seemed beyond pitiful. I sat down next to her and said hello. That was all I got out before I started crying. So much has happened in 7 months. There are life stories that were in the conflict stage when she died that are in the resolution stage now. There are stories I thought would never have a different ending that might actually get a different ending. There are things I wanted to tell her.

So I sat there and told her.
But mostly I just sat there.
For 5 hours.

Between the cemetery and dinner, I checked into the second hotel across the original parking lot. It felt more like brunch with your cousin and less like I walked in on an animal sacrifice in an empty warehouse. And at the new hotel, Jennifer’s sister came to see me. These meetings are bittersweet. Never is it more evident that she is gone than the moment I sit and talk to her sister on a hotel couch. But I wouldn’t trade that time for anything and it breathes life and energy into new connections. I will hold onto these connections with everything I have, because it keeps me from letting her go.

When Natalie left for a wedding, my stomach got the better of me. It was 4:30 and I was famished. I was so famished that I seriously considered again treating myself to Chuy’s next door. But Ellen had told me to go to Cambridge Market and get Jennifer’s regular order. Southern Pecan Chicken Salad and White Bean Chowder. That didn’t even sound good to me in the moment. But I couldn’t take the predictable Chuy’s route again, so I grabbed my laptop and headed to the place Jennifer loved. The chicken salad was good, but I wouldn’t have sent a postcard home about it. The white bean chowder was another story. That one might make the family Christmas card.  After the first bite I was trough eating, my face so close to the bowl I could feel the heat coming off it as I ate. I almost licked the last little bit. I didn’t but instead left some bowl clingers to take a picture of what was sticking to the sides. I have pipe dreams of somehow recreating this soup in my own kitchen. As if. I’m not capable.

On the way home from Cambridge, I was no longer hungry. But the Hot Now sign was on at the Krispy Kreme next door. I may have been full, but I’m not stupid. I got the donuts.

My night ended with a couple of really good hugs, one of them from my travel companion and the other from Jennifer’s daughter, Hallie. I’ve known Hallie since the day she was born. I met her friend Mackenzie the day of Jen’s funeral. Now Hallie’s friend, Mackenzie, is also my friend, Mackenzie. There are a lot of these connections that have formed because Jennifer’s glue was so strong and her message so beautiful. I continue to witness her impact on my tribe.

Hugging Hallie was something I needed to do. Sometimes you just know that you are standing in a moment. This was one of those moments. I stood in it for as long as I could without being creepy. And then I froze it in my mind.

So I guess I did go to Bowling Green to cry. And I did cry. A lot. But I was alone for most of it and smart enough to stop at Kroger for Kleenex.
I also went to Bowling Green to put my eyes and hands on Jennifer’s people.

And I did that.

We said we’d do this.
And we are doing this.
And we will keep doing this. For as long as it takes.

(The following are notes I typed on my phone on Saturday, June 30, one while sitting quietly in the cemetery and the other on the sidewalk in the middle of a run I took pretty much so I could say I hadn’t packed my running shoes for nothing. Because that’s how I roll.)

Cathedral

The God who created you has taken you home.
You are not here, but I am sitting at a plot of earth, staring at your name and dates on a plate the size of a business card.
As if that can sum you up.
The grass has not even grown over the earth where they placed you.
The God who created you and took you home
created the grass that tries now to grow over you
and the crickets that hum quiet strains of a daytime lullaby. Maybe just for me.
The God who created you
and took you home
created the tiny green bug that scoots along a piece of crab grass below your name plate.
He is on a mission, like you always were.
The God who created you and took you home
created the mosquito that bites my hand three times while I sit here talking to the air and pretending it is you.
The God who created you and took you home
created the crow that calls from a nearby tree
and the tornadoes that stripped that tree of its friends
and the breeze that shivers in what’s left of its branches.
You are not here, but this is as close as I can get to you right now,
so I’m going to sit awhile.
The God who created you and took you home
created me too.
And He’ll take me home, too.

I’ll see you at home.
7/30/22

The Chase

I know how to be alone.
And with the exception of a couple of pivotal meet-ups, I have been alone this weekend.
I do not feel sorry for me.
And I do not wish different for her.
But I miss my friend so much.
I have asked myself so many times why it’s such a big deal that she’s gone—why I can’t turn a life knob and move to another station.
After all, we only saw each other a handful of times a year.
And after 2017, she was never inside my house again.
Why is it such a big deal?
It is.
It is a big deal.
We were each other’s safety net.
Each other’s confidant.
Each other’s history holder.
Each other’s constant.
Each other’s ‘wait that doesn’t sound right…what’s going on?’
Each other’s what do you need?
Each other’s answer to the question what do you need.
We were each other’s.
And now I’m only mine.
And it’s a big deal this weekend because she isn’t here
and I am.
I am where she used to be.
And she is where I want to be.
I have been tempted to ask her back.
I have searched for a meet in the middle.
But it looks like I’ll have to go to her.
For now, I’m here alone.
And that’s okay.
I know how to be alone.

The Graduate

I slapped my boy hard in the face on the day of his high school graduation.
That was Saturday.
But to be fair, he asked me to.

His was the first ceremony of the day, which meant that alarms were going off in the house by 6 a.m. that morning. I was the only one hearing them and spent the next 30 minutes trying to get people out of bed. I finally managed to make Brady hear his own, and he got up and put on his graduation outfit. Normally, I would write more about the ceremony than I would about the getting ready process. But in this case, the morning routine was almost more notable. And it deserves a little ink.

If you don’t know Brady, and you don’t really know me, this story may not mean very much. We were both very much in character on Saturday morning. That’s not necessarily a good thing. My oldest boy graduated high school with the class of 2020, which is to say that he didn’t cross any kind of a physical stage. Covid killed everything that year. Actual classes. School trips. Proms. Graduation parties. And graduations themselves.

That being the case, there was a lot of unused potential energy and high expectations rolled up into Brady’s event on Saturday. I was already leaking a little from the eyes on Friday night. My kid who potty trained himself because he didn’t like to be damp and who spent all of 2009 clinging to whatever I was wearing on my legs was about to be done with school. I went to sleep on Friday night with a taut sheet of emotion stretched from my forehead to my chest. I was feeling it all.

But I woke up fine. Five different alarm clocks going off like a row of casino games will do that for a person. I went downstairs to deal with the dog. By the time I got back upstairs, Brady was wearing his gown over his dress pants and shirt and fussing with his cap.

“This cap does NOT fit over my hair,” he said, examining himself in a full-length mirror that is, for some reason, hung at a 45° angle on his wall. I’ve never thought to ask him why and didn’t on Saturday morning. But nothing fits over his hair, so I didn’t touch that one either. “And how do you get the wrinkles out of this gown?” He looked over his shoulder to me, hoping for an easy solution.

“You take it out of the plastic shrink wrap and unfold it before the morning of graduation?” I answered. “Want me to do something with it?” I hoped he didn’t want me to do something with it. He needed to be out the door within 15 minutes.

“They said no ironing or dryer. They said steamer only,” he replied.

“Well, I guess we go as is then.”

“Guess so.”

At this point in the process, he was practically out the door. There was nothing else to put on, plan, or struggle with. It was time to go. That’s when he walked out into the hallway.

“Can I drive Dad’s car?” He asked sheepishly. Oh. Hmm. Well. I mean it hasn’t been 6 weeks since two of our cars were totaled, so I’m not sure he’ll be excited about this possibility. But I poked my head in my bedroom to ask Todd and he agreed.

This is the point in the morning where the tide turned from relaxed to frenzied. He lowered himself into the fathermobile and began to connect his phone to the car’s bluetooth system. Except that it wasn’t working. With each attempt to connect, the tension within us and between us went up a notch. He was already going to be at least 5 minutes late. I’m all about punctuality, but I mean, I get it. I like my tunes. Being subjected to what some DJ thinks I ought to be listening to is often painful. So I continued to watch the bluetooth misfires as we communicated in tight knots of tone and message.

“Dude, you gotta go,” I said for at least the third time. “You gotta give this up.”

He couldn’t give it up.
+Add a Device
Connect to Bluetooth
Connect to Bluetooth
If you would please I beg of you CONNECT ALREADY TO THE BLUETOOTH.

Nothing.

“Dude,” I started again. Sometimes I’m under the impression that if I use casual words like “dude,” no one will notice the unnaturally high pitch my voice takes on in the moment. “If the music is that important, go get in your car and drive away.”

“My car seats are still soaked from fishing.” Of course. Even so, he got out and was now standing in a flowing, wrinkled red robe in my driveway, wedged between two decisions: fish seats and bluetooth or leather seats and 80s karaoke.

He was now officially late and not even sitting in a car yet. I started to say “dude” again but he cut me off at the pass.

“OK, OK,” he paced for a minute. “I’m going. I’m going in Dad’s car.”

“Without music?” I asked.

“Without music,” he answered. “OK, I’m going.”
He wasn’t though. He was still standing there. I grabbed his face in my hands and tried to drum up a less frustrated pep talk. I could tell he was struggling. I didn’t want him struggling an hour before this milestone event.

“I’m sorry.” He had a tortured look in his eyes.

“You don’t need to be sorry,” I said. “But you do need to go.”

“Slap me,” he said, with his face still in my hands.

“What?” I asked. I had heard him. But it was a strange request.

“Slap me,” he repeated.

So I slapped him. But not very hard.

“Slap me again,” he repeated. I slapped him again.

“Again,” he said. “Harder.” This time I came at him with both hands on both cheeks. I popped him slightly harder, but it just didn’t feel right to me.

“One more time,” he said. “Really go for it this time.”

So I did.
On the morning of my boy’s high school graduation, I doublehand slapped him across his face.

And it fixed everything. He happily got into that bluetoothless car and drove away.

And graduated.

I think there’s some sort of metaphorical significance to the slapping and the driving away, but it isn’t working in my favor to analyze that. And I really don’t want to think about it anymore.

Because he still drove away.

And as much as I have enjoyed every individual last fraction of a second I have spent with this amazing manchild, it’s his turn to drive away. And it’s my job to let him.

When Giants Fall

Life is absurd and beautiful and funny. I tend to focus on the absurd. My whole life I’ve been laughing at my own mistakes. Pointing them out early on saves me the shock of the old lady stranger in Costco coming out of nowhere to tell me that 90% of the warehouse heard me fawning over the adorable baby 7Up cans. I like to control the roast and throw the softballs.

But lately I haven’t controlled much of anything and the laughter is harder to come by. I’ve watched a lot of people tip their hats and cross over into eternity before I was ready for that to happen. I’ve been to more funerals in the last two years than I’ve been to weddings. My oldest son graduated high school by e-mail. I’ve cried as much as I’ve laughed. And I no longer have any control over who I cry in front of. The best I can do is keep a napkin on hand. I can’t even seem to manage Kleenex.

The most recent of somber events was the death of my 12th grade English teacher, Sara Lamar. She was a giant of a human being. This was evident when I was 17, but even more so during the service that honored and remembered her life. She was 91 and had been fighting dementia for many years. I decided to drive up to Tallahassee to attend, because my kids are old enough to set alarms and go about their routines without a lot of supervision or fanfare and because I’ve regretted most of the funerals I didn’t attend. Even the ones I skipped for good reasons I have come to regret.

I expected this service to teeter on the edge of irreverent, and maybe be a little bit humorous. After all, Sara Lamar was the best of all things irreverent and funny. I did laugh during most of the speakers. Everyone did. I didn’t expect to cry.

After the service, which was lovely and entirely appropriate, I spoke to exactly one person: Janice McLain, who taught me English during my 10th grade year. This poor woman inherited me as a student when I had one canvas sneaker still anchored in puberty. I dressed like a hobo. I had an afro. And I hadn’t woken up to the fact that an A on my report card might actually do more for me than save me from a harshly worded lecture. By the time Sara Lamar got ahold of me, I was at least savvy to the power of an A. What I remember most about Janice McLain’s class was her dry wit and the book A Separate Peace. I didn’t want to read it. I think I actually tried not to. But one chapter in was all it took for me to make Gene and Phineas my brothers. I was all in. I’ve read it at least 3 times as an adult.

I was 15 when Ms. McLain had me in her class. I’m 51 now. I walked up to her after that funeral knowing she was not going to remember me. But her eulogy was moving and beautiful and perfect. And it was her words that made me cry. I needed to thank her for that.

I walked up feeling awkward, vaguely aware that at my age, awkwardness should not be a thing.

“Hi.” I said. “I wanted to speak to you because I loved what you said up there. You won’t remember me. You taught me in 10th grade.” I had already given her a pass.

“Thank you,” she replied graciously. “You’re Missy, right?” I mean, I was. I am. But I think I about forgot my language skills when she called me by my first name. How did she know that? How? Really. I still can’t quite get past this.

“Yes!” I said in shock. “How do you remember that? I was nobody in your class. I wasn’t a great student.” Maybe she remembered me for all the wrong reasons. I mean, there were some wrong reasons to remember me. Especially in that phase of my life.

“Knowing student names is a survival mechanism for teachers,” she said. I’m certain that’s true. I just couldn’t have imagined it remaining true 35 years later.

I thanked her for her remarks and for the poem she included. She ended her eulogy by reading “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou. I had never heard it before. Hearing it read almost unraveled me, especially in light of all the loss of the last 6 months. When I got into my car later and pulled it up online, I cried all over again.

When Great Trees Fall

Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants lumber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

I took some time to reflect on this and on my time with Mrs. Lamar. I remember being in physical pain on the green carpet of my bedroom as I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man well into the night. It was awful. AWFUL. I hated it so much. Every word was an unmedicated root canal. But I read every word, because that’s what you did in Lamar’s class. You did it because you respected her. And you did it because she’d bust your chops on a test if you didn’t.

A few weeks into my first quarter in her class, Sara Lamar gave me a new name. I was a big gum chewer. I spent a ridiculous amount of money as a kid on Dubble Bubble, Super Bubble, and Bubble Yum. I wasn’t picky with my brand as long as that burst of sugar was present and I could blow a bubble with a single piece. I blew a bubble in Lamar’s class, but only the one time. I popped it like gunshot, got reprimanded and handed the trash can, and then was forevermore renamed. She named me Bubbles. She never called me Missy again. By the end of the year, she had forgotten why that was even her name for me. I liked being Bubbles. It felt like a perpetual private joke between me and someone I truly loved and respected.

I loved Mrs. Lamar. She knew I loved her. But after I left Tallahassee in 1995, I never really went back. Until March 28, when I went back to celebrate her life. And though it’s been forever since I was in her classroom, I was among her students again that day, listening to her words, their words, and Maya Angelou’s words.

Following that final class, I ate lunch with a friend and then immediately climbed back in my car to go home. The lessons I learned that day kept me company on my drive home.

I learned that people are not necessarily who you think they are in high school. Maybe they never are. Some people got up to speak who were high school peers of mine but to whom I never spoke a word. They wouldn’t like me, I assumed. I wouldn’t like them. It would be awkward or embarrassing or impossible to befriend them. It wouldn’t be worth the effort. I now know it most certainly would have been worth the effort. And I should have made that effort.

The world is full of giants. Sometimes they are the ones being eulogized. Sometimes they are the ones delivering the eulogy. Sometimes they are both. Giants are easy to see. But you do have to be looking for them.

Remembering someone’s name makes them feel like a giant, even when they are not. I learned that one from Sara Lamar 33 years ago and from Janice McLain 4 weeks ago. I had forgotten what an understated luxury it is to be known and called by name.

You can never go home again. I’ve always known this, but never fully understood it. It’s because home is not really the place; it’s the people. The morning of Mrs. Lamar’s service, I was staying in the hotel across the park from the church where I’d need to be. At daybreak, I walked out of the hotel wearing my running shoes and walked from there to Florida State to the Old City Cemetery to the downtown Public Library and back to the hotel. I walked past all the old haunts. My old memories were fresh. All the places were there. The people were not. It’s not home anymore. Not to me.

Nothing is forever. After a morning of ruminating on the wisdom and wit of Mrs. Lamar, I walked back across the park to my car to text my friend, Georgia, about the lunch we had scheduled. I suggested Barnaby’s. I mean, who doesn’t love Barnaby’s? It’s closed, she replied. Closed? Like on Mondays or FOREVER? At this text, I felt my world go very hot and dark. I was a little lightheaded at the news. I was already there to say goodbye to a favorite teacher. Evidently, I was going to have to say goodbye to my childhood as well. Barnaby’s was the place everyone went to after a baseball game or on a Friday night. A place with frothy root beer and old-fashioned arcade games. Barnaby’s was the Sara Lamar of pizza joints. Their pizza was the Sara Lamar of pizza. And yet, there I was in downtown Tallahassee agreeing to Chicken Salad Chick because nothing is forever.

It is a weird feeling to look around for the people and the places that made me who I am and not find them. The people are not there. The places are overgrown or boarded up or living new lives with new people that have nothing to do with me. If the one who called me Bubbles is gone, am I still Bubbles? If everything around me changes, where does that leave me standing?

I wondered for only a moment, because I’ve spent a lifetime doing my reading. I know the answer to this one.

It leaves me standing here–
still Bubbles,
still my mother’s daughter,
still Jennifer’s friend,
still all the versions I’ve ever been of myself
–with the essence and lessons of all the ones I’ve lost,
and forever changed by them.

“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

The Convalescent Chronicles – Chapter 1

Plate Full O’ Lettuce

My friend, Melissa, is good with old people. She always has been. She has had a long career as a speech pathologist in a nursing home, dealing with people who, from what I can determine, mostly just choke on rice.

But speech pathology is not where she spends most of her time these days. These days, we are of the age where our parents are the old ones. So Melissa spends a lot of unpaid time in her mother’s nursing home. She lost her dad to Covid in July. Her mom, Myrna, who has been duking it out with dementia since 2008, now lives in a memory care facility with the likes of Carolyn, Leo, Kay, Francis, Mary, a guy who plays a mad harmonica, and Pauline. On any given afternoon, you can find Kay wandering the halls and disappearing into any room with an open door.

I am not good with old people. I wish I were better, but they scare me. They are unpredictable in all the wrong ways. Like—will they be wearing pants and do they have any teeth and will they walk into the wrong room and use the bathroom where there is no actual toilet? They ask unanswerable questions. They fall and can’t afford to. And the younger folk have to be ready to react.

Lately I’ve been trying to build some muscles in areas where I have none. I’d like to be more helpful with some of the older people, so I’ve been tagging along with Melissa when I can and trying to improve my reaction times and caretaking skills.

I’ve gone several times now and twice I was on my own with them. I tried not to wear my fear like the flashing strobe it is. But Pauline is special. Pauline knows. I don’t know what she was like before she began to fight with her memory, but I know who she is now. Pauline can read your soul. She could have told you I was a spoiled baby before I showed my true colors. Her dark blue eyes are wide open and seem to consistently penetrate beyond the surface answer I try to give her. I don’t know where my relationship with Pauline is going, but I know she’ll redirect it if she doesn’t like what she sees.

Pauline is the most lucid of all the residents I have met and spent time with. She hadn’t seen me in a week and remembered my name. We are good on my name now, but she still gets foggy about everything else, so we run through the same routine every time I come in.

“So you’re Missy, right?” she asks.

“That’s right,” I always say. “Hi Pauline.” And we exchange pleasantries. Eventually, she comes around to kids and families. She has one son, Brett. He visits every Sunday.

“So, Missy,” she always begins an exchange with my name. And she always has my attention. “What do you do for a living?”

We’ve been through this before. I don’t know why this question always embarrasses me, but it almost always does. I think it’s because I haven’t been gainfully employed since 2002, when Andrew was 10 months old and confined to a play yard in my upstairs loft. I quit when I couldn’t do both. I never regretted that decision, but I often regret the way my answers sound coming out of my mouth. Sometimes I try rewording it to see if it flies better in different winds.

“I don’t do anything that makes me any money,” I said to Pauline yesterday.

“Oh, that’s not what I asked you,” she retorted quickly. Does this woman really need to be in memory care? I look around to see if anyone else is wondering the same thing. “I didn’t ask you about money. I asked what you do.”

“Well,” I thought through it for a bit. “I raise kids for a living.”

“Well, ok. And how many kids do you have?” She followed. This was the same conversation we had a few days ago.

“Four,” I answered. It was good for me to be reminded.

“Wow! Four! Boys or girls?” She asked.

“Two and two,” I replied.

“Two boys. Two girls. You lucky bum!”

She was shaking her head at my situation, almost in awe of the information she had consumed that would filter through her before lunch was served.

“I am a lucky bum,” I said. “I’ve been lucky.”

“Actually, luck has nothing to do with it,” she decided. “The Lord blessed you.”

At this point, an old woman across the table, Mary, piped up. I didn’t know this woman yet. She was carefully bent over her plate and pushed a silver wisp of her perfect helmet of hair away from her face. She still had a bite of cake in her mouth.

“The Lord! Well. He did a LOUSY job with me!” Melissa and I were both wearing masks so it was easier to laugh undetected. When Melissa finished laughing, she decided to seek clarification.

“Why do you say that, Mary?”

I was still laughing. I almost couldn’t get it back at that point. Mary looked angry.

“Because someone broke in my room and stole my teeth! I had a nice set of teeth! They were expensive! People are so mean.” Her eyes roved from us to her cake plate again. I was ready with my alibi for the window where her teeth went missing, I half expected her to come after me.

At the next table, Francis was bent over a salad, trying to keep pace with the other residents and finish her dinner. Every other resident in the room had moved on to dessert. Francis, hunched over, was eye level to the food in front of her and finally took inventory of her situation. She spoke up in a quiet, raspy voice.

“Why does everyone else have chocolate cake and all I got was lettuce?”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve wondered this, I would have just that one nickel. But some variation of this question has passed my brain 100 times. And that’s like 5 dollars.

Some days are like this.

You end up with a plate full of lettuce while the rest of the world eats cake.

The Race

This race was never supposed to be about Jennifer. That’s not how it started. It was supposed to be about me.

I started running over a year ago, not knowing I’d be able to. I had been attempting to rehab back from plantar fasciitis that sprung up from a bad phase of life I call “Old Moms Wearing Vans.” But I had to start running because I wanted to get back down to my middle age fighting weight. And who even knows what that is? Because I hadn’t ever been healthy and also middle aged. To achieve this nebulous goal, I had to outrun my milkshake habit.

I don’t diet.
So I had to run.

I ran a 5k last February. But because running was going well and I was still drinking milkshakes pretty regularly, I decided to keep running. And I kept pushing the distance a little as I went. Right after Thanksgiving, I tried a 4-mile route and it didn’t seem like as big a deal as I guessed it would be.

So I kept going.

On December 2, I signed up for a 10k race to be run February 12. I believed that would give me plenty of time to train.

On December 11, I ran 5.08. It went pretty well, and I figured I might as well keep going.

It felt very Forrest Gump at times.

But then there were the holidays.

And three days after Christmas, Jennifer got sick and I threw my running energies into worrying. And praying. And pacing around on my back patio.

Between December 11 and the race, which was Saturday morning, I ran 4 miles, two times. And I ran between 2-3 miles a handful of other times. Most of those runs didn’t go very well. Some of them started as runs and ended as calls for help.

I never once ran 6 miles.

I wasn’t ready.

I considered quitting.

The internet came in with some unsolicited advice. I saw a meme that said, “When you get tired, don’t quit. Learn to rest.”

And then I thought about Jennifer. She didn’t quit. She didn’t wave her white flag. She did what doctors told her to do and dug in. She was committed to making diamonds out of coal.

And I had told her I was running the 10K. She had encouraged me to go for it. It didn’t feel right to bail. She never bailed on anything. So I decided I’d go in cold and bold. And I’d run it for her.

After all the sadness and travel of the last 4 weeks, running took a back seat. Time was up. There were no good days to get one more long run in, but I felt like I needed to do something. On Thursday, I took off on my regular 3 mile route. Half would be good enough to stay warm but not so hard that I’d be sore the day of the race. At the two mile mark, I ran past my friend’s house. Melissa, (Failing At Life Club Co-President) was sitting in the front window, waving. At least I thought she was waving. I thought it was a “You GO GIRL!” kinda wave. I waved back and kept running. Apparently she was wildly waving for me to cross the street and come inside. I ignored all of that and was almost past the house when the front door flew open and her daughter called out.

“Miss Missy! Can you come in and look at my hamster? I think it’s dying!” Oh dear. We all know I have a Master’s Degree in Dead Hamsters. And now that I understood there was an emergency, I stopped running and crossed the street.

“Ok, but get me water,” I panted. When I crossed the threshold of the front door, I walked out of reality and straight into the twilight zone. I can’t overstate the freakshow I waddled into. Nor can I completely judge it. I have been reminded more than once that I took our hamster, Peter, to the vet three separate times before then paying $80 to put the hamster down. And I cried all the way to the car, carrying his little cardboard casket. All in all, that hamster cost us well over $300. It was only $16 to begin with.

So, you know. It takes one to know one, I suppose.

But I’m getting my freakshows confused. Back to the current one. I’ll return to the running in a moment.

With an ice cold water bottle in my hands, I rounded the corner from the living room into the front room and found Melissa wearing latex gloves and watching over a lethargic hamster like a priest performing last rites. I paused to take the scene in. The hamster’s eyes were mostly closed, but slowly blinked as the room cheered. And then, Melissa took a gloved hand, scooped little Nelly up, and tenderly flipped her over. ON A HEATING PAD.

“Look! It just took a breath! It’s breathing!” She announced, as she tenderly flipped Nelly again. It occurred to me as I stood there gratefully sipping on my water that I was witnessing a Hamster Rotisserie. They were slow roasting a dying rodent on a heating pad.

There was a lot of back and forth about the hamster and her habits over the last few days. I was certain Nelly was on her way out. But I was careful about who I said that to. I stood there with them for 10 minutes. But when I knew for sure there was nothing I could do except proclaim bad news, I tossed my empty water bottle in the trash and commenced the last mile on my route. That hamster died overnight.

And that was my dress rehearsal for a 6.2 mile race.

That was Thursday.

On Friday, I didn’t run at all. But I ate carefully and went to bed at 10 o’clock. My alarm was set for 5 a.m. but I was up at 4:24 before it went off. I arrived and was standing in the registration tent in the pre-dawn darkness. Of course they had no record of me and no packet for me. But I had proof I had paid, so they assigned a race bib and t-shirt to me and happily sent me away. I still had 45 minutes to kill, so I returned to my car to hydrate and stretch. That’s when I noticed I was in the system as Bib 4229, Missy Snapped. Sigh. Such an easy last name. And never right. I mean, NEVER.

It wasn’t even daylight and my registration had been lost and I was labeled to have already snapped. I shrugged it off as just another weird rung in the ladder. This race had already been anything but typical. And I continued to tell myself how I intended it to go. Training and registration had delivered some blows. But the race itself was going to be a strong finish.

At 7:25, they lined us up. I had eaten one banana and had lots of water. I lined up for the portapotty and used one. Then I immediately got back in line and used it again. When your race packet says you “Snapped,” you don’t start an hour-long run with a full bladder. I paced nervously at the Start line while a man with spanx and a microphone prayed for us all. That felt like a nice, and very Plant City, touch. And then a huge mass of people took off with the sun rising on our backs.

So many people. People with double strollers. People with barking German Shepherds.

It was at least a mile before the starting clump of runners thinned out enough for all of us to find our own pace. When I did, I fell into a rhythm that seemed sustainable. As I approached the second mile marker, I noticed younger female running and staying about 5 yards ahead. She had a 10K bib on. I decided to keep pace slightly behind her. For the whole race. She didn’t stop at water stations or change her pace. She kept running. I did the same. I kept the same 4 people in my sights for the next 4 miles. None of them ever stopped. Not for water. Not for anything.

At about the 5.5 mile mark, my main girl slowed down to being a few yards behind me instead of slightly ahead. But the other 3 were in view and all of us stayed together. The further into the 6th mile I ran, the harder it became. For the first time, I wondered if I could go all the way without stopping. But my people were still running. So I continued to run. And at the 6 mile sign, with only 2/10 to go, I saw the inflatable Finish Line. To this point, I had continued because I knew the Finish Line existed and because the people around me continued. But now, I kept going because the end was actually in sight.

And maybe it was the weird Colin Raye country song that was oddly placed in a playlist of Fall Out Boy and Imagine Dragons, but it hit me how much like life this race really was. Life gets hard sometimes. It gets REALLY hard sometimes. And if you are Jennifer, or someone like her, the race can look impossibly hard. Jennifer kept going for her people and with her people. Until she saw the Finish Line.

She never once stopped running.
She finished strong.

Two months ago, when I pushed myself a tiny bit and registered on a whim, the race was about me. On Saturday, pushing to do something that was bigger than I was, it became about my friend, Jennifer. We both completed races. She won hers. I finished mine. I was grateful for her strength as I collapsed in the grass holding a finisher’s medal.

I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I locked eyes with the medal I was holding. This would have to be where I drew the line at eternal analogies. Her prize is glorious. My prize had a goofy little cartoon strawberry on it.

But for now, that would have to do.

The Birthday Tattoo

February 8, 2022

Dear Jennifer,

Happy Birthday! Today you would be 51. You didn’t make it to 51, but you did one better. You are whole. And you finished STRONG, friend. The emotions leading up to this day have been pretty difficult. I was dreading it. I started the day fighting tears. But I didn’t start the day without a plan. I had a whole plan. A crazy plan. A plan that included some of my people. And a plan that included some of your people. The beginning of my day would have left you shaking your head in confusion. But the end of my day was a celebratory dinner you would have loved.

Let me back up.

Last year on your birthday, you texted me when you woke up. You weren’t supposed to beat me to it. But knowing it was an hour earlier for you, I was letting you sleep. You texted and asked if I could FaceTime. I texted back that I could and wished you a happy birthday, ya stinker. We talked that morning and texted all day long. You had a good day. You were fully celebrated. Your texts were full of exclamation marks and emojis. I am certain you felt the love.

That makes me happy.

You told me there weren’t enough exclamation marks for your thank you. I told you there wasn’t a gift good enough for who you are.

That’s true.

You know how I know?

Because today I went and got a tattoo. I ran out of good gifts and ideas and landed in a dirty tattoo parlor on 7th Avenue in Ybor City where I let Beau dig into my wrist with a needle to HONOR YOU (not an honor to you, I know, I know) in a place you would never have set foot and probably would have scolded me for going.

And somehow I couldn’t be more excited that I did this.

(It wasn’t really that dirty. I just wanted to say dirty tattoo parlor for shock value.)

The tattoo came about slightly by accident when I was eating dinner before going to the Betty White movie on January 17. I had found an ampersand in my neighbor’s rather clean pile of discarded items. I had taken it home and written about it. And then I got a text from my friend, Lea, in Tallahassee that I should go with her to get an ampersand tattoo. Until that moment, I had NEVER ONCE considered such a violently compromising thing as a tattoo on my person. But the moment my friend suggested it, I decided I was doing it. It was almost past tense already.

And then, only 5 days later, I lost you. And we celebrated you. And boy have we celebrated you. There’s so much to celebrate.

I came back from celebrating you in your hometown and decided I had to find a way to get the tattoo on your birthday. It needed to be today. Ironically, my straightlaced husband was served by a very tattooed waiter in a restaurant and got the name of their tattoo artist. I made an appointment for today.

And that’s how I landed in Ybor City with two inches of ink on my arm.

To the ampersand portion of the tattoo, I added the tribe symbol, because the last gift you gave me was the tribe necklace. I haven’t taken it off since Christmas morning.

So Happy Birthday, Jen! For a gift, I got a tattoo you would think is insane, but that would likely not surprise you. It reminds me of an old episode of The Simpsons (which you also would think is crazy) where Homer bought Marge a bowling ball for her birthday inscribed with the name “Homer.”

I got me a tattoo for your birthday.

But it wasn’t for you after all. Because you don’t need anything for your birthday this year. The tattoo is for me.
To remember.
To never forget.

I can’t afford to forget the things you constantly taught me. You reminded me that everything that truly matters is on the other side of the ampersand. And you reminded me that I have a tribe. And though you are not holding us all together on this side, we are all now holding each other.

Which brings me to the other part of my Jennifer Day celebration. I talked to or texted with so many of your people today. Your mom, your sister, your daughter, your friends. And we all gushed over and about you. We all started out with mostly you in common. But I think I can confidently say that what we’ll end up with will be what you would have hoped for. I think we’ll end up with a fused connection that far outlasts the raw stages of our grief.

So in this, on your day, you gave US something.
You gave us each other.

Tonight, on a dreary, unusually cold Florida night, Jennifer G. and I got together for dinner. Just the two of us. This has never happened outside you.  We met at Chili’s, which hasn’t changed since we were all there in 1991. It was a great meal, with great conversation. The pictures we took weren’t so great, but you can’t have everything.

We made a plan to meet up once a month. I really think we will. I’m going to work on getting her tattooed before the next dinner. I’ll let you know how that goes.

It’s late, but I didn’t get to call you today, so I’m doing the next best thing. I’m writing.
So. Happy Birthday to you, friend.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Thanks for the day in, day out gift of the best friendship.
And thanks for the gift of your people. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

(The tattoo is just a bonus.)

I miss you—you wouldn’t believe how much—but I’m doing okay. And I have no doubt you aren’t missing a thing.

Carry on.

I’ll be seeing you.

Your very edgy friend,
Missy

A eulogy for my dear friend, Jennifer

Jennifer Elizabeth Smith Earnhart
February 8, 1971 – January 22, 2021

Jennifer and I didn’t have a ton in common. She was Laura Ashley and I was borrowed gym shorts. I don’t know why she loved me, but I know she did. She never left you questioning how she felt about you. Nobody loves like Jennifer did and there will never be another Jennifer.

Jennifer passed through my home church in Tallahassee in 1989 while I was out of town. We were both seniors. She was going down to Tampa for a college visit to the school that brought us together. My mother met her and was taken with her. She did everything she could to get us together as roommates, since neither of us had one arranged. To me, my mother said, “I just met the most amazing girl, Missy! She’s going down to Florida College in the fall and she doesn’t have a roommate. You guys would hit it off great! You should write her.”

To Jennifer, my mother said, “Oh, I wish my daughter was here today. She’s going to Florida College in the fall and doesn’t have a roommate. She doesn’t want to go and we’re kind of making her. She’s not excited right now. I think she’d LOVE you!”

My mother shared all of this with me when I got back in town. Jennifer and I both remembered this and laughed about it later. I listened to my mom describe her and rolled my eyes, thinking, “Goodie-Two Shoes. No, thank you.” She listened to my mom describe me and cringed inwardly, thinking “Maladjusted Angry Hobo. No, thank you.”

The joke was on us, because as it turned out, my mom was right. We did hit it off. But I don’t know if she would have relished living with me, so maybe that part was a God thing.

My friendship with Jennifer was as good as it gets. And I’m so grateful it has a paper trail that’s as long as the friendship was. We have scrapbooks, a box full of letters with actual stamps sent in the actual mail. We have a year’s full of faxes (google “fax machine,” if you have no idea what this is) between us from our first real jobs that is a running daily log of our first year of marriage. And I have thousands of texts that go back over the last 5 years.  I can’t describe how much I will miss her name jumping to the top of my text window. She never forgot an event or a date. Her mind was sharper than a meat cleaver.  And no matter where she was or where I was or what was going on, she was right there supporting me. She never felt good. But she also never felt too bad to keep up with me and my people.

I look out on the horde of college students here primarily for Tyler and the young people here for Hallie, and I can’t help but think you guys are now what we were then. And we never drifted from that. I have 32 years of memories with Jennifer. I have been flooded with them over the past several weeks. Girls trips to St. Augustine and St. Pete. White water rafting in North Carolina. A poor man’s weekend vacation as newlyweds to Atlanta. I remember calling her when I had my oldest son in my arms, having just signed the paperwork to adopt him. And I remember calling her when my younger son was baptized just 6 weeks ago.

Jennifer had an open heart. Mine was locked up pretty tight in the beginning. I believe I learned friendship from her. She had an easy laugh and I hope I never forget the sound of that laugh. She was the type of friend who would laugh at your jokes even when they weren’t funny. She didn’t hug, she embraced. She didn’t say love ya. She said I love you. When you talked, she listened hard. And there is nothing in my adult life that she didn’t help me through. Not a single thing. Even this–even now–as I start 2022 without her, I am starting it with a devotional book that she gave me for my birthday. I’m a snotty, artsy type with strong opinions. I haven’t met many devotional books that I loved. This one, I adore. And every day so far, the message has been spot on. It’s like she knew. She had to have known. So even in this–even in losing her–Jennifer is still holding my hand.

The comforting thing about my talking here today is that I don’t have to tell you who Jennifer was. Everyone here knows. She was who she was in every circumstance. Every sickness. Every big event that any of us went through. She was focused on God. She was focused on her march to Heaven. She was focused on her people. She fully supported us. She LOVED deep and pure.

However, there are some things you may not know about Jennifer. I wasn’t lucky enough to know her in pre-Florida college days. When you see photos of those days, she and Natalie are always together. Their names were practically one word. JenniferandNatalie. NatalieandJennifer. Every person here knows how much Jennifer cherished Natalie. I’ve never seen another relationship like theirs. From the first moment I met Jennifer she gushed over her little sister. Natalie is in so many of our FC pictures. She was at our concerts and our sleepovers. And we never minded because she was everyone’s little sister. And when Jennifer started dating Tim and I was up visiting for a weekend, Natalie became my entertainment while Jennifer and Tim were off “complimenting each other’s hair” in some dark corner somewhere. I took advantage of that situation more than once. I took Natalie to the Warren County Jail where Joseph Kirkpatrick was a pretrial officer one night (we were AT the jail, not IN it). I talked her into swiping her mother’s most expensive French embroidery needle and piercing my ear using that and an ice cube. It may not surprise you that when we proudly marched up to Pat with the needle hanging out of my ear lobe, she was unimpressed with every part of this project. JenniferandNatalie were everything the rest of us aspired to be. And Natalie is still everyone’s little sister. I do hope she’ll remember that.

But back to the childhood photos, which is where this started.

In many of the old JenandNat photos, Jennifer looks like an innocent benefactor and Natalie looks like a stinker. But what not everyone realizes is that Jennifer had some stinker in her too. She was mostly sweet, with a little stink.

The following Jennifer nugget has been specifically requested and was not originally in my talk.

In my estimation, everyone gets at least one Mulligan to use on one Momentary Lapse of Reason. Most of us wear out this concept and need a Mulligan twice a week. And most people assume, with good reason, that Jennifer never had a reason to use hers. But she did. And I just happened to be there that day to witness it. The day after we graduated from Florida College, 10 of us took off for a week in St. Augustine. Looking back, our parents should never have supported this adventure. I was in a separate hotel with 2 other girls and Jennifer was in the first hotel, in a group of 7. We showed up separately to restaurants and tourist traps. Trying to coordinate 10 fickle, hormonal girls without GPSs and cell phones in 1991 was more than challenging. Some stuff happened that week.
It left room for errors.
It also left room for some pranks.

One afternoon, we had arranged to meet at the Fort and we were coming from our separate hotel rooms. Heather and Susan were in my car with me and we were running behind. When we finally got to the fort, we parked in the main lot and were rushing to catch up. We figured they would have already started touring without us. Much to our very great surprise, we came around the corner of the big front, stone wall and Jennifer’s group was there, with her in the mix of course—FRONT AND CENTER—and they were waiting for us.
But with their backs turned.
And with their pants down.
They had collectively mooned us.
It was practically choreographed.
My Goodness, Missy! Eyes on the ground. Do not make eye contact!

People don’t believe me when I tell them this story. They 1st don’t believe I was a MOONEE. And they certainly don’t believe SHE was a MOONER. But I am telling the truth, 100%. To those with dropped jaws and great concern, please know that no one else was around but us. And accept this as proof that Jennifer had some zip in her and that clearly she’d do anything to support her friends. This could NOT have been her idea.

As you might imagine, Jennifer was horrified in her more mature years that she had participated in such debauchery. I didn’t struggle with the guilt, of course, since I was simply a victim. She cleaned up her act, as you all know. And she was the Jennifer we know and love and fully celebrate today.

She was mostly sweet with a little stink. The sweet came into play far more often. I want to share something we laughed about from our final time together. I was blessed to be able to go to LA when she had her last back surgery at Cedar Sinai this past June. I took my two girls with me, who were 13 and almost 15. When she wasn’t in therapies, we were with her. When she was, we were off looking for Kardashians. The first full day I was there, she texted and asked for her regular Starbucks order. I recently pulled up this text and it made me laugh.

She took one look at what was under the metal lid on her hospital breakfast and said no thanks. The highlight of that visit was the time we spent eating meals outside together in the courtyard of her rehab facility. The weather was PERFECT and she loved being outside. I hadn’t rented a car, so all of my food and rides were done through Uber. Most of the time, this went off without a hitch. But one night, there were some hitches. She had been craving a burger. So we ordered a meal from Shake Shack about a mile away. I met the Uber driver at the street while Jen and my girls waited at a table in the courtyard. When I got to the table and started unpacking our food, I had fries and chicken tenders and one missing item. Wouldn’t you know that the only thing missing was the only thing that mattered: Jennifer’s hamburger. I immediately texted the Uber driver and asked about the burger. His first response had a tone of too bad so sad. Shake Shack’s fault. I’m not allowed to open the bags before delivery. He told me to call the restaurant, which I did. I was on the phone with Shake Shack and trying to manage the Uber guy’s texts, all while trying to stay out of earshot of Jennifer and my girls, because I was getting a little bit hot over this whole thing. Shake Shack apologized and said they would be glad to refund my money. At this point, I said, probably too loudly, I don’t want a refund. I have money. We can’t eat your money. What I need is a hamburger sandwich for my friend who hasn’t had a lot of good food or fun lately. Jennifer—who never misses anything– was totally savvy to what was going on. As I’m talking, the sweet part of Jennifer was talking in my other ear. Things like Missy, let it go. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about this anymore. I can eat these fries. Or have a couple of tenders or something. She was trying so hard to call me off. Shake Shack was telling me I needed to open a new Uber order, which I was now doing in addition to texting the first guy, talking to Shake Shack, and swatting at Jennifer with my free hand. As all the ridiculousness was coming together in a perfect storm of stupid, I pulled the phone away from my ear, put out my free hand, and shushed Jennifer up like she was a naughty toddler. Shhhh. I got this. I’m gonna get you a dang hamburger if it kills all four of us.

When I hung up, I honestly had no idea what was going to happen, but I don’t even think Jen was hungry anymore. I was still standing shellshocked when up ran the original Uber driver, who had gone back to the restaurant and get Jen her missing burger. I tried to tip him big. But he wouldn’t take it. This part of the story went down like a reverse mugging. I was chasing him with a $20 bill, my girls were sitting with Jennifer with their mouths wide open, and Jennifer was holding the contraband as shocked as they were.

That was a strange meal. When we were finished, my girls said goodnight to Jen and walked together the half mile back to our hotel and I took Jen back up to her room. I stayed an hour that night and chatted as she settled into her bed. The PA system announced that visitors needed to leave when the door swung open to Jennifer’s room and a nurse stood there holding a bag.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s from Shake Shack. Looks like a burger.”

After we had a little chuckle, she said, “That’s gonna stink up my room. Throw it away in the lobby.”

Those days with her in Los Angeles were not fun ones for her, but they were sweet for me. And I will carry them with me for the rest of my life. I have been so lucky to be a part of her life, her family, her church family. Thank you all so much for allowing me to be. And for letting me talk about someone I love so much.

I have talked to and spent time with so many of Jen’s dear friends and family over the past week. We are all missing a huge piece of our hearts now. We all have a Jennifer shaped hole in us. She would want us to grab hands and walk home together. She would want us to fill that missing piece with each other and for each other.

I’m going to finish with something that is far too personal that I didn’t get to share with her, but I absolutely would have if I had had the chance. It’s from me to her, but I really do think it could have been from any of us. I wrote it at 2 a.m. the day she won her race. I knew she was approaching the finish line and I knew I needed to not hold her back but instead to cheer her on. .

The Long Goodbye

It’s been 7 days
176 hours
10,566 minutes
Since you said goodbye to me.
It was a good goodbye.
Almost as good as our friendship has been.
You know, right?
And I know.
We loved each other well.

Every song throws my mind to a car seat clothed in
French fry grease and conversation,
or a porch swing
or a couch.
Where you were.
Where we were.
Together.

I’ve always known I was going to lose you.
You were going to leave me first.
I’ve known.
But sometimes I dart in front of a moving car or I paddle board alongside a gator,
to see if I can make myself go first in a spectacular, newsworthy manner.
Because knowing you’ll leave first does not filter the slate from the sky
Or dull the ache of this long goodbye.
The truth is, friend, I have been losing you since the moment I found you.
But still I don’t know how to lose you.

I’ve been gripping my end of this tether so tightly
That you haven’t been able to run home.
We all have.

It’s been 7 days
176 hours
10,566 minutes
Since you said goodbye to me.
But I haven’t said goodbye to you.
I didn’t want you to walk home if I couldn’t walk with you.
I didn’t want you to win if it meant I had to lose.
You’ve never once beaten me in a foot race,
But it’s time you did.
You know, right?
And I know.
We loved each other well.
And we both win.

I’m letting you go ahead—for now.

You go.
I’ll catch up.

Inside the Ampersand

My mind is a cage for chaos lately. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. And my quiet, unclaimed moments are spent trying to make the chaos fall in line. Or join hands with another piece.

So that it all makes sense.

I need it to make sense.

When things aren’t connected and when they aren’t making sense, I need a connector that helps it make sense. This very thought was on my mind on Saturday morning when I went for a run in my neighborhood. I was only .3 into it when I passed a clean, organized pile at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. There was a box of Christmas ornaments, a couple of wreaths, and a sizable wooden ampersand.

&

I kept running, because if I even entertained the thought of stopping, I would never get started again. If it’s still there when I get back, I thought, I’ll take it home.

Of course it was still there when I came back around. People in my neighborhood are not looking for wall-mountable conjunctions before 10 a.m. on a Saturday. By this point in my run, I was walking. It’s easier to walk home with a large ampersand than it is to run with one.

Since then, I’ve been staring at that ampersand, answering my family’s questions about it, and thinking about what it all means.

The ampersand is an ancient symbol, which can be proven at least as far back as Pompeii. It was a flamboyant shorthand way of writing the Latin word, ‘et ‘. I don’t speak Latin, because I have a thing against dead languages, but research tells me that ‘et’ means ‘and.’ And until the 1800s, the ampersand was recited as the 27th letter of our alphabet. Maybe it was something like Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z and, per se, and. Say that last part fast, and you have ‘ampersand.’ We probably cut it from the alphabet to make way for a catchy ABC song.

But whatever. None of that matters. It’s just interesting information. What’s important is the functionality of the ampersand. It serves as a connector between two ideas, whether similar or contrasting. Or between two time periods. Or people or places or things. It is before & after. Cause & effect. You & me. This & that. Peas & Carrots. Grace & mercy. Math & migraines.

Sometimes, though, that second thing is slow to show up. Sometimes the before is there and the after gets delayed. Sometimes you are there and I am not. Sometimes the carrots leave the peas hanging. In those moments, I walk home, holding a trash pile ampersand and wondering what comes next. What comes next?

I’ve been waiting inside the ampersand for longer than feels natural. I’ve found myself here lately more than I want to be here.
I want to know what comes next.
I want to face what comes next.
And, if I’m being honest, I want to control what comes next.

My dearest friend from college is fighting Covid in an ICU room in Kentucky. She’s been in the hospital going on 2 weeks now. She’s been on a ventilator since Saturday. Her body is tired, but her soul has been running the show since at least 2008.  I’ve never seen tenacity like hers. She loves her people fiercely and will fight like a lion to provide what they need, whether it’s a bag of flavor-blasted goldfish, or a hug, or a text about why she loves them so much. Or just her presence. She seems to understand that simply by staying, she is serving. I understand why she continues to fight.  

Her people need her & she knows it.

Her people are still evolving & she wants to participate and witness.

Life is beautiful & she’s willing to endure the painful straightjacket she’s been wearing for decades.

I have thought about my friend, Jen, pretty much non-stop for weeks now. Non-stop since I read the text, “Well, I tested positive.” I have been praying for what’s on the other side of the ampersand. For what I want on the other side of the ampersand. I have been thinking about all of the things that go with Jen. That are on the other end of her ampersand. Her husband. Her kids. Her sister. Her mom. Her friends. Her sweetness. Her strength. Her perseverance. Her fight. Her faith. Her Savior. Her God.

Her absolute determination.

The only thing I don’t know, and what I so badly wish I knew, is what the after is to her before.

So I will continue to wait.

I will not know & be at peace.
I will lose my words & continue to pray.
I will remember the lessons I’ve learned from her & do my best to live them.
I will work here & walk home, where my city is.
Where nobody has pneumonia or back pain or cancer.
And where the ampersand is never needed. It’s just there for added flair.

The Inventory and the Time Machine

I hate clichés. I especially hate being one. But this is a cliché time of life, with Covid raging for what looks to be the third straight year. And it’s a cliché time of year, with the world taking stock of 2021 and making plans for 2022.

I’m no different. I’m taking stock and making plans, too. I have done this for at least the last 20 years. Every year has been the same. By February, I have given up and wished myself better luck next year.

In 2016, I went out for a walk on New Year’s Day and discovered a 5K that was finishing up in my neighborhood. I went home and wrote down the following:

Shortly into my mistake-free New Year’s walk with my Christmas present fitness tracker, I encountered a runner wearing a race bib. This person wasn’t exactly running. Nor were the stragglers behind him. It became clear to me within moments of my first racer sighting that this was the end of the race. The very end. These guys had been at it for awhile. They had been BEAT UP by this race. And as I climbed the only hill in my flat central FL tinytown, I saw the last place runner coming toward me. I know she was last place because she was being followed by a police car with his lights on. So either she was being arrested for running too slow, or he was the cop signaling the end of the race.

This woman was struggling. She was barely in it. I visually took her in, as much as I could, in the few moments we intersected. I somewhat unintentionally locked eyes with her briefly as she continued her woggle (jog + walk + wobble) down that hill, and she managed a weak, sheepish, almost apologetic smile at me. It was a smile that said she was embarrassed. She was sorry she wasn’t faster, thinner, nimbler, edgier. She seemed sorry it was her in front of that cop car. She seemed sorry I saw her. Sorry we made eye contact. She’d been caught in last place. But I wasn’t sorry at all. Because right then it hit me: A last place finish is still a finish. She was slow, sure. She was struggling, clearly. But she was IN THAT RACE. She had a bib on. She wore the sweat like a trophy. She had the cop car behind her. She was going to finish that race. And she did.

Me? I didn’t even know about the race until I turned off my street to take my January 1 Victory Walk. I wasn’t in the race at all. Last place was ahead of me. This year, I want in on the race. I want in. I want to be official. So I’ve picked a word I’ve been thinking about for years but never turned into a profit. This year I want to be intentional. I will do life intentionally.

You know what I did with 2016? Unintentionally nothing. I did not run that race.

But this year, I took a little detour. I turned 50 in the final days of 2020 and celebrated in the lame, lackluster way people celebrate while also running from a virus. And then I sat down and made a list. Not of New Year’s Resolutions, but of things I wanted to do before I turned 51. I spent 2 weeks typing out the list. Named it 51×51 and saved it as a word document. And then I set about trying to accomplish it all, one by one. In January, I ate an entire meal using only chopsticks, which was not one of the more challenging or noble goals. I also took the jon boat across the river and tied off to a branch so I could hop off and explore the woods. I found nothing of interest, but it satisfied my thirst for a Davy Crockett moment. In February, I ran a 5K at a pace faster than I had been training. I finished far ahead of people much younger, but they time you and award you by age brackets. In the 50-54 age bracket, I finished 3rd. Out of 6. That’s pretty darn mediocre, but I checked it off my list and kept running. In March, I spilled my guts and took a very large step forward that almost no one would see or notice. It didn’t matter that no one saw or noticed. Because it served its purpose and I checked another item off my list.

There were things on my list that I tried to check off multiple times, but failed to because of circumstances out of my control. Storms prevented my view of the virgin north Florida night sky and my attempt to ride a horse on a beach. My iron levels prevented my plasma donation three different times and I finally gave that item up. Jenna blames me for this. Says I should have eaten more broccoli. Eating broccoli was not on the list. I guess it should have been.

There were also things on my list that I gave up because they were stupid. Like walking the dog in stilettos or straightening my hair and immediately eating mexican food or reading all of the books in my room before buying new ones. Please to all of the above. Stilettos would cripple me for life. My head is too small with straight hair. And it’s time to simply accept that I have a problem where books are concerned. I’m never going to read them all and I’m never going to stop buying them.

And there were things on my list I eliminated because I didn’t care enough about them to make the investments or take the risks. Like skydiving and hang gliding. Those who know me and my run of luck know those things would kill me and leave a sizable mess. I decided I didn’t need that in 2021.
I did get a mammogram.
I did not make it to the podiatrist. If I can get there before sandal season, all is forgiven.

I opened my list periodically and looked at it. I checked some things off, shook my head at others, and closed it up long enough to live a little. No one ever asked to see the list. I never printed it out or showed it to anyone. That list was for me. And like no resolution I’ve ever made, the list led me to progress. Not total success or certified completion. But definite, measurable progress.
And that’s enough for me.
For now.

This year has been upon me for 3 days now. I’ve been sizing it up and hashing it out for quite a bit longer than 3 days. And a 52×52 list is swirling in my head. I’m hoping to have it on paper tomorrow. And if sometime in September, you see me playing Amazing Grace on harmonica like a boss, maybe at a wedding or a funeral or at a local school board meeting, throw me a $10 bill and call my agent. Because that’s definitely on the list.